Friday, August 12, 2005


'Fire' tells tale of British naval greatness


The Tribune-Review
By David Walton
August 07, 2005

Two hundred years ago, on Oct. 21, 1805, the British navy under Admiral Horatio Nelson soundly defeated Napoleon's combined French and Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar, on the Spanish coast near the entry to the Mediterranean. This "great and dreadful" victory put an end to any serious threat of a French invasion of Britain, and guaranteed an unrivalled British commercial empire for a century to come. Nelson's death in the battle set a standard for British courage and sacrifice that endured until the trench slaughters of World War I.

"Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar," Adam Nicolson's vivid reconstruction of that day, and one of this year's best and most interesting books, is also a meditation on what drives people and nations to victory and greatness. Nicolson doesn't limit himself to "the facts of rigging and armament, weather and weight of broadside," but focuses rather on "the mental atmosphere" of the people who fought and won one of history's great battles. His book will appeal to many more than customarily read military history or the sea novels of Patrick O'Brian.

Nicolson is best known for "God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible," and more recently for "Seamanship: A Voyage Along the Wild Coasts of the British Isles," a slim first-person account of his own sailing experiences. Like Neil Hanson's excellent "The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True History of the Spanish Armada," published earlier this year, Nicolson's account of Trafalgar combines a first-hand feel for his subject with the insights today's technology offer into the exact role of winds, currents and coastal alignments at a battle site. In fact, as is true of many of history's great moments, we have a better knowledge today of what happened at Trafalgar than most of the participants had.

At daybreak the British, with 27 ships, sighted the enemy fleet with 33 ships-of-the-line, and set full sail to engage them. These huge warships, wooden blockhouses with oak walls three feet thick, moved at a walking pace, not faster than two or three miles an hour. They required more than six hours, from 5:50 a.m, to 12:30 p.m., to intercept the first enemy ship.

The British though outnumbered had been tracking Napoleon's fleet and were eager for battle -- "hungry" for it, Nicolson says. British naval force was an instrument of British trade and commerce, something even the lowest seaman understood. Taking an enemy ship, a "prize," translated into sizeable sums of cash that would set a captain, a first lieutenant, even a common sailor up for life.

"The battle was lost and won before a moment of it was fought," Nicolson says, comparing the highly disciplined fighting confidence of the British against the luckluster Spanish, tied to their old aristocratic order, who reserved the higher offices for the aristocracy and offered little hope for advancement on merit, and the French navy, demoralized after years of revolutionary upheaval.

Nicolson divides his narrative into "Morning" and "Battle," and uses the long hours while the ships draw steadily closer to reflect on the principles of order and discipline, duty and honor that engaged Nelson and the men under him so fiercely.

Nicolson's description of that afternoon's battle shows just how "dreadful" these principles proved for the crews on Napoleon's ships. The British, led by Nelson's own ship, sailed directly across the enemy line, setting off a bloody melee. The essence of British tactics was: "kill enough of the enemy for them to surrender."

A favorite British maneuver was "raking," passing along the stern galleries of the enemy ship, the most vulnerable part, where the captain and officers had their quarters, and firing their cannon in succession down the full length of the ship, destroying everything between decks. Raking, says Nicolson, was "the apotheosis of the killing craft."

The difference between raking and a broadside received broadside-on was "the difference between a battle and a slaughter."

After the ferocity of battle, the victor become humane and noble, and Trafalgar is filled with stories of British consideration shown the defeated French and Spanish. Towing their battered prizes back to port, the British fleet was struck by a devastating storm, which would claim an additional 2,000 lives. However, 8,000 more were saved. Again and again.

British crews risked their lives to rescue enemy sailors from the sinking wrecks.

"The disgusting reality of war," Nicolson concludes, after reviewing the scorched, mangled, butchered bodies and blood-slick decks that underlay the legend of Trafalgar over the next century -- "that becomes obscured under the sublime and theatrical beauties and exquisite moral drama of distant violence."


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